We continue to hear more and more (and I have written before) about the postsecondary “completion agenda” in the U.S. In short, roughly 30% of the working adult population currently has completed a bachelors degree or higher. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2018, over 65% of jobs in the U.S. will require a degree or postsecondary certificate.
President Obama called increasing postsecondary attainment our generation’s “Sputnik moment,” drawing an analogy to the moment in John Kennedy’s administration when the Soviet’s launched the world’s first artificial satellite. This original “Sputnik moment” launched the U.S.’s successful race to the moon (something to reflect upon, especially due to the successful landing of the Mars rover, “Curiosity,” not to mention the recent death of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon).
Today’s “Sputnik moment” has nothing to do with space exploration, of course, but rather the goal to greatly increase the postsecondary education of a large number of Americans within less than a decade. Many states and organizations are involved in this work and have issued specific goals and objectives, a few reflected here:
“President Obama is committed to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020. The President believes that regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy.”
Gates Foundation Complete College America
“Complete College America has set a goal that by 2020, six out of 10 young adults in our country will have a college degree or certificate of value.”
“Increase the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate degree or higher to 55 percent by the year 2025.”
Lumina Foundation Goal 2025
“To increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.”
The percentages and deadlines vary, but one thing is common among these initiatives: big numbers and big change. Daunting. How might we accomplish this?
I have discovered a couple of interesting reports published by the Center for American Progress, written by Louis Soares, that are worth exploring further. Both take ideas from Clay Christensens’ disruptive innovation theories and focus on using technology to increase and improve student learning outcomes and degree completion. Within traditional higher education, some of these ideas are viewed as somewhat controversial—yes, disruptive.
“Competency-based education is an outcomes-based approach to education where the emphasis is on what comes out of postsecondary education—what graduates know and can do—rather than what goes into the curriculum. With a competency-based approach, you do not begin preparing a course syllabus by identifying content and readings. Instead, you begin by identifying competencies and then select the content, readings, and assignments to support student attainment of those competencies” (p. 2).
Western Governors University and Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative. Technology is employed to help students and faculty assess how well students are mastering various competencies embedded in the course. Data also are used to adapt and refine the course over time.
“Technology will transform higher education as it has many other industries. One of the ways it will cause transformation is through personalization—giving students more power to understand and craft the education experience they want for themselves. This will happen as information technology, or IT, becomes embedded in more and more of the processes that make up going to college such as course enrollment, classroom instruction, and student support services” (p. 1).
Technology based “mini tutors” in the Carnegie Mellon Open University Initiative help student master materials. The Saddleback College (California) SHERPA system provides course and schedule recommendations based on student schedules, preferences, degree progression, and learning strengths. The idea is students will learn and progress through their degrees more efficiently with the assistance of new technology that can customize the learning to student strengths and challenges.
Personally, I do not believe technology is the sole solution to the challenges of today’s “Sputnik moment.” Yet these ideas have great potential and are worthy of our attention. Technology and a data-informed approach contributed greatly to getting American astronauts to the moon (and a rover to Mars). It makes sense that the thoughtful application of technology will play a greater role in helping us achieve the massive numbers involved in our national postsecondary completion goals.